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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VI, No. 2
Summer-Fall 1982


(IN THIS ISSUE)

REPORTS AND REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE

2. The Hairy Ape, dir. Rob Mulholland, designed by Mulholland and producer Harold Easton. Studio Theatre Productions, New York University, June 16-26, 1982.

The Hairy Ape has been popping up with increasing frequency in Freshman English readers and American literature anthologies of late. And, while the one work alone must give students a very distorted picture of O'Neill's overall artistry, its ubiquitousness is not hard to explain--and the reason isn't simply its convenient brevity. Despite the datedness of its technique, The Hairy Ape is dateless in its message. As producer and designer Harold Easton has written, "this play about a man pitted against a hostile world addresses issues and emotions as relevant in the society of the 1980's as they were in the 1920's.... The alienation of the individual from his or her society is more true today than ever before." Besides, the combination in its hero of sensitive, nascent poet and incredible (but not, alas, indelible) hulk is irresistible, as are, for a different reason, the caricatures of Mildred Douglas, her aunt and Senator Queen--villains of various hues whom one loves to hate. If only the play were easy to mount and perform, it would be a sure-fire hit every time. Unfortunately it is a very tricky vehicle, and the production last June at New York University's Studio Theatre, while generally creditable and graced with a physically impressive Yank (Anthony Matteo) and a lusty crew of young and dedicated performers, did not master all the tricks or solve all the script's inherent problems.

Take the language---please! While the actors were carefully schooled in every syllable (I've never heard a more meticulously faithful reading of the text), the results often veered very far from believable human speech. Long's cockney dialect, for instance: neither Eliza Doolittle nor her professor could voice lines like "what're we goin' ter do, I arsks yer?" with any aura of verisimilitude. While the fault is really O'Neill's, and not John Dougherty's or his director's, it suggested to me that, if the play is to be seriously accepted, its dialect must be adjusted to the actors who've been engaged, rather than they to it. Another vocal problem, less blamable on the playwright, was a general disregard of vocal architecture in the long speeches that stud the text. The delivery must build slowly to an emotional climax; whereas here, all too often and especially in Yank's case, it began at such a level of intensity that there was nowhere to build to. And Mr. Matteo frequently paused at disconcertingly wrong moments. One small example: in Scene III, when recoiling at Paddy's insistent self-pity, he paused lengthily in the middle of "Lie down and croak, why don't yuh?" Surely his reaction, whatever its cause, should come out in one fiery burst. (I hasten to add, after these picayune notes, that Mr. Matteo was generally very effective indeed--in tracing the changing associations, from whimsy to desperation, in Yank's use of the word "tink"; in proving his leadership by getting the other men to join in his derisive laughter at Paddy; and in the touching delivery of his quieter moments, especially his recitation of youthful memories in Scene V.)

A second problem is the staging. A short play with seven different settings in its eight scenes would tax even a wealthy producing organization, and Harold Easton's wise choice was to use a few key props, projections, and strategically altered lighting to suggest the various locales. (Sometimes, as in Paddy's nostalgic speeches in Scene I, the subtle changes in lighting aided the atmosphere tremendously.) But to leave the IWW operatives on stage, in tableau, during Yank's post-ejection soliloquy at the end of Scene VII was disconcerting, as was the decision to have a prisoner deliver Senator Queen's speech (in Scene VI) as though he were Senator Queen. How would a prisoner have access to a top hat, lectern, and script of the speech? (He didn't read from a newspaper!) Perhaps I had just insufficiently suspended my disbelief--though I had no trouble in the last scene, when all the characters from previous scenes slowly returned to the stage, and when we were required to imagine a gorilla. (The characters' presence at Yank's demise was a thematically effective interpolation; and the invisible gorilla was probably a wise decision, since monkey suits seldom leave audiences chuckle-free.) When Yank succeeded in removing the bars, he entered the cage, there was a blackout--a scream--and a faint light in which we saw the dying man hanging out of the cage. Perhaps an unemphatic ending, but true to O'Neill's instructions. (If only the playwright's last sentence could be shared with the audience!)

Despite my cavils, I found the production thought-provoking and the use of the multi-platformed open stage effective. Maybe The Hairy Ape is less destructible than its protagonist. Messrs. Easton and Mulholland are to be commended for bringing three O'Neill plays to the New York stage (Caribbees and Hughie had been performed six months before) in a season that saw few if any others there.

--Frederick Wilkins

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